Kesha is praying non-stop in the background. Phoebe Bridgers feels emotional motion sickness every time she thinks about her ex. And Taylor Swift is never ever getting out of exile. The sonic landscape of my living room is both melancholic and magnificent as I sit down to my first COVID Christmas Eve dinner, alone, with just the cats to keep me from face-planting in the gravy.
My sister and her family arrived an hour earlier, holiday elves in Santa hats and festive face masks, with turkey, mash, stuffing, the works. I can’t celebrate with them tomorrow because my ex and his entire family have been infected, and even though my seven-year-old daughter has tested negative, she must quarantine with him for the time being.
There’s something satisfying about being able to indulge my self-pity in this way. To let my grief grow so big and hot it explodes like a baked potato left too long in the microwave. I don’t mind the splatter of sorrow, the mess of my life evident every time my eyes land on something from Before.
My husband left me three months ago, during a global pandemic. My sadness is an endemic, constantly present to greater and lesser extents, depending on when the world-tilting news hits my heart all over again.
I remember waking up in your bachelor apartment and hearing “Anna Begins” by The Counting Crows playing in the bathroom as you shaved before work. The way I knew, just from hearing that much-loved song, muffled but still a classic, that I had finally made my decision, and you were it. When you emerged in a towel, your bedroom eyes blind without your glasses, you had no idea you had just won my tug-of-war heart.
Living in this particular location doesn’t help. His ghost haunts the basement, watching Netflix shows like Ozark and the revival of Twin Peaks. Our den used to have two identical white desks. Perfect for two freelancers working at home before remote working became all the rage. Now one side of the room is jammed with storage containers of memories I have yet to weed through, deciding what to keep, what is junk.
These rooms are like countries I no longer visit. Watching my husband working, listening to music with his wireless headphones on, is no longer an image I want to flash before my eyes every time I walk by that shared office, so I keep the door firmly shut.
Later I watch another episode of The Office, trauma balm in the shape of a TV show that allows me to emotionally escape for a few hours every night. I’ve only seen snippets of repeats, so this daily viewing routine allows me to experience the entire story, from start to finish. My ex was always telling me to watch more comedy, instead of the dramas and psychological thrillers and crime shows I gravitated towards. I guess he figured our life was hard enough, my moods so up and down, that a half an hour of programmed laughs would be better medicine for my bipolar disorder than something more disturbing. Maybe he was right.
A few weeks before he left, he would make a point of watching an episode or two with me on the couch. I was taking his advice. This is me trying may have been written on my forehead. I could sense him morally weighing up what to do when he walked by. Pretend to make an effort long past the point of hope of turning our relationship around, or descending to his man cave to be alone and genuinely content.
If he stayed, it was only ever for one show. We laughed at the same time, when we were supposed to, but he disappeared as soon as the credits started to roll.
Here’s the hard truth about marriage: It really is all or nothing. Sure, one of you can half-ass it and phone it in for a time while the other person carries the load, but eventually you need to talk your shit out and face your problems and make an effort. If you don’t, your vows start to disappear on the page letter by letter, until they’re written in invisible ink. And that day when you got hitched in an independent bookshop swearing to something sacred begins to fade so the word forever actually means five years instead.
Back in Ben McNally’s bookshop, in my sexy mermaid dress, I was not worried or concerned. You had once told me you didn’t believe in marriage, but now, here you were, making an exception for me. I remember how you got tears in your eyes when saying your vows, while mine remained bone-dry. Those heartfelt words you wrote out on a notebook I ordered from Etsy were not a package of pretty lies. But that day we stood separate on a special island out of time, far away from the realities of online learning and mental illness and chronic pain.
When we travelled to Jamaica for our honeymoon, the idyll continued with dirty banana drinks, juicy beach reads and delicious meals.
But that interlude of easy love had to end sometime.
Two weeks later, we had to fly back to real life.
My ex informed me he wanted a separation 38 weeks and 5 days after our ten-year anniversary of us being together. Sometimes you can sense a crescendo building in a song and still be blindsided by its intensity. That was me on a sunny perfect August morning. Leaping out of bed and chasing him down the stairs, out onto the driveway with my wild bedhead and mismatched pajamas.
All I could hear was that awful refrain: This may be hard to hear…
It was like a persistent earworm that kept repeating in my shell-shocked brain.
I knew things had been changing — worsening — for a long time. But I also thought enough of the core of us remained to survive. That there was enough of that original love to get us through to the other side. But he didn’t want to talk about it, so we avoided it, cracking eggshells every day in an effort not to fight in front of our daughter.
She noticed anyway.
Back in 2009, I took your ultimatum seriously. I never had any interest in living a double life or hurting anybody. When you showed up in my world, I just wasn’t ready for the real thing. But when you sang Ray LaMontagne’s “Burn” to me one night in your apartment, I could hear in your voice all the vulnerability and your agony you’d been hiding from me.
There was no way I was walking away or shutting your soul down tight.
As you stood here, shaking and raw from expressing something so real, I carefully picked up the heart you had lain on your sleeve.
If it was up to me, I would never have given it back.
Now I dread drop-offs and pick-ups like the plague currently infesting the world. Twice a week a man who looks like someone I used to sleep with stands on the threshold, blank and practical and cold. We are still figuring out how to translate the words and silences and everything that becomes an issue when a ten-year duet ends abruptly, halfway through a song I never thought we would stop writing.
And I don’t want to talk about it, but I still love him. This doppelganger with dark hair and chocolate-brown eyes. So I live with it. How I will never sing with him in the car again, my feet up on the dash, his hand on my thigh, the two of us alone and safe in the capsule of a song, content just to be sitting side by side.
I’ll never forget all the times you walked me to the subway late at night when I had to go home. One time I asked you to sing “All The Wild Horses” by our favourite, Ray LaMontagne. We were stood in the bus shelter, the next part of my journey, our arms wrapped tight around each other, as if it would be an eternity instead of the next day that we would see each other again.
It was cold. I couldn’t stop shaking. Your voice was hesitant at first, but then it gained strength. And when you got to the part about the clouds, and just letting them roll away, I felt the tears start to stream. The song became a lullaby in that instant, and I let it wash me away.
When you were done, I said, “If I’m ever sick and dying, please promise me you’ll sing this song to me. It makes me feel safe. It’s so comforting.” At first, you thought I was joking, but you quickly realized I was serious, such was its effect on me. And you said, “Yes, of course.”
And then you began to sing it again.
Tara Mandarano is a Best of the Net–nominated writer and editor based in Canada. Her work is featured in the anthologies BIG: Stories About Life in Plus-Sized Bodies and You Are Not Alone: An anthology of perinatal mental health stories from conception to postpartum. She has also been published in the Washington Post, HuffPo, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hypertext Magazine and Literary Mama. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @taramandarano or visit her website at www.taramandarano.com.